Kurt Vonnegut on How to Write With Style

My clients sometimes worry about developing their writing style and personal voice. I tell them that one of the surest ways to lose both is to try finding them. Rather, style and voice emerge naturally when you focus on other things.

Recently I unearthed an item from my files that confirms this point. It’s a reprint of an ad by International Paper—a copy-heavy 2-page spread that ran in national magazines way back in the 1970s (that dim, prehistoric, pre-Internet era when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth).

The author is—of all people—Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and many other books.

This thing is a gem. And International Paper was way cool for letting this cranky novelist step into the corporate spotlight.

Unfortunately the ad is long out of print and hard to find. I’ll give you the essence right here.

So how do you develop style? Vonnegut gives a succinct list of answers.

Find a subject you care about

This comes first. As Vonnegut notes:

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

Do not ramble

Enough said.

Keep it simple

People sometimes equate writing style with large words and complex sentences. But as Vonnegut reminds us:

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Have the guts to cut

One of the hardest and most useful ways to cultivate style is to delete the passages that fail to serve your purpose. Inevitably, these will include some of the most eloquent sentences in your draft. As Vonnegut notes:

If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like yourself

English is a language of infinite possibilities, offering everything from the rhythms of Shakespeare and the King James Bible to the utilitarian prose of technical manuals.

Even so, Vonnegut urges us to retain the nuances of our first language—the diction and syntax that we learned as children:

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child….I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench…. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

Pity the readers

This is my favorite point. When focused on self-expression, we can easily forget our audience. They are people much like ourselves—short on time and overwhelmed with options. Our first obligation is to serve them with lean, lucid language:

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify—whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.